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Marine geochemistry

Catherine Jeandel : Aquatic journey

Marine geochemist Catherine Jeandel has been following chemical 'tracers' found in our oceans to better understand continental land-water exchanges and monitor the possible consequences of global warming.

c jandel

© J. Chatin/CNRS Photothèque

The computer's screensaver has an image of the sea–not your ordinary sunset postcard view, but the open sea. Two bright orange oceanographic vessel buoys hang on her office walls. Catherine Jeandel, a senior researcher at the Laboratory for Space Studies in Geophysics and Oceanography (LEGOS)1 in Toulouse, has a real passion for the ocean. A specialist in marine geochemistry, she measures “the distribution of certain chemical elements in water,” helpfully identifying them on her coffee mug, which features the periodic table of the elements. “They function as 'tracers,” she continues, “enabling us to study the movement of bodies of water among these immense 'ponds' we call oceans, and to reconstruct their history.” The expected outcome is a more comprehensive understanding of how continental land-water exchanges take place, how carbon is carried by the oceans, and measuring the impact of climate change caused by human activity.

Jeandel's keen interest in the environment, her adventurous streak, her delight at the prospect of weighing anchor to set off to the far side of the world in search of marine samples (from the Kerguelen islands near the Antarctic Circle to the coast of Greenland), her educational work with prison inmates–none of it escaped the attention of the prize committee of the 2006 Whirlpool Women in Gold Trophy. Since 1993, this prize has been awarded to oustanding women in various fields.2 Jeandel says that she would like to dedicate her award to her team in Toulouse, but also to women everywhere. “I believe it is important to have awards specifically for women,” she emphasizes. “With the increasingly insecure employment situation, I've seen more and more gifted young women abandon research because they find competing for positions so daunting.”

And Jeandel knows what's she's talking about; she fought those battles herself. After a brilliant student career at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, she defended her thesis in geochemistry at the Paris-based Physical earth institute.3 She joined CNRS in 1983 as part of a young team directed by Jean-François Minster, which was to initiate a brand-new discipline with promising applications: chemical oceanography.

Getting the support she needed for her research was tremendously liberating. “It's like being able to fly!” she enthuses. “Research should not stray from its primary purpose, which is to push back the frontiers of knowledge. CNRS is a marvelous organization, which gives you the means to explore every topic, and its projects are not constrained by the need for immediate practical applicability.” “Besides,” she adds, “without its continuous support and that of INSU,4 which takes care of our needs and funds our research vessels, I could never have developed my tracing techniques using isotopes of obscure elements like neodymium, thorium, and protactinium”–very exotic elements, according to her colleagues.

Wearing rubber clogs and hooded labwear which completely covers her head, Jeandel dives into the chemistry “clean lab,” eager to see the results from her last expedition to the South Seas. “These clothes are essential to avoid contamination, because what we are measuring is infinitesimal,” she explains; “it's about 10-10 moles per liter, a minuscule proportion.” Jeandel and her team have just demonstrated that iron, an element that encourages the development of algae in the Pacific, on and around the equatorial line, is not carried by the wind, but by the water which first rubs up against the Papua-New Guinean coast. “The interaction between the landmass and the ocean must be a primary area of research in the effort to understand the environment,” she emphasizes. For the future, Jeandel's ambition is to assemble an entire battery of different tracers, in order to determine the history of any given body of water, tracking yet more minuscule particles in the vast deeps of the ocean.


Charline Zeitoun

Notes :

1. Laboratoire d'étude en géophysique et océanographie spatiales (CNRS / Université Toulouse-III / CNES / IRD joint lab).
2. Art, cinema, communications, business, theater, sport/adventure, and since 2004, research.
3. Institut de Physique du Globe.
4. Institut national des sciences de l'univers.

Contacts :

Catherine Jeandel
LEGOS, Toulouse.


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